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A big question within the Steam Community is whether or not there needs stronger quality control over the games being sold. To be honest, there is a lot of crap on Steam, but is it right to deny developers access to Steam just because their game sucks? The call for change comes from many voices. This includes indie developers and gamers themselves who are genuinely concerned about the quality of games in general and don’t want others to be cheated by a half developed lemon of a game. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this topic isn’t simply a question of whether terrible games should be allowed on Steam, but rather a complex issue about how markets themselves work.
The main argument against quality control is that it ends up hurting everyone from developers to Steam itself. It’s up to the gamers to pick and choose what to purchase, and if a game sucks from a technical perspective, they can try to return it and tell the community. This argument compares Steam to a literal storefront where one can shop around and compare products to buy. It is essentially putting responsibility on the gamer to know what they want and to use critical thinking to sift through the amalgamation of games to finally decide what they want and if they should purchase it.
This logic is ultimately a fallacy. According to Tomasz Mazurek of gamasutra.com, the Steam storefront ends up falling into an information asymmetric market called “The Market for Lemons”. The term was originally coined by economist George Akerloff in 1970 to describe a market failure mechanism in the used car market. The theory goes that the most rational thing a consumer can do is to make an assumption about a car’s quality based on the average quality of the other cars on the market. If some cars in the market are lemons, consumers then assume that all the cars in the used car market must also be lemons. This further depresses the average quality of used cars as a whole. Mazurek, a game developer himself, brings up the “lemon market” car theory and applies it to the Steam Market. He states that “if the supply of games surpasses the reviewer’s ability to review them and the quality of the games falls at the same time, the result can be a downward spiral of falling average games’ quality and prices.”
This seems to be true within the Steam market when looking at the numbers. According to Steam Spy 4,207 games were released on Steam in 2016 alone. That’s 40% of all the titles in the entirety of the Steam catalog. Taking this one step further, 80% of the entire catalog came out in the last three years alone. That’s a flood of games that reviewers have a hard time keeping track of, making it impossible to adequately determine a game’s quality in a timely manner. The few that do fall into reviewer’s hands could very well be, to put it bluntly, lemons. This then leads to the assumption that the rest of what’s being released is lemons. Even with complaints and negative reviews warning others to stay away, the sheer number of unplayable, broken games, continues to rise.
Having an open and saturated market for Steam isn’t only bad for players, but it really ends up hurting independent developers. The game makers who do work hard to create longstanding and well-made products end up getting buried by the myriad of trash coming through the floodgates of Steam. A lot of indie devs are just small teams with no big publishers, or publish it themselves, and don’t really have access to great marketing or PR. Steam was originally supposed to highlight these games and make them more visible to players looking for something off the beaten path. But since 2013, Steam has decided to let more content into their marketplace, which has decreased the visibility of smaller, more deserving developers.
It’s hard to take on the behemoth that is Valve, but what is there to be done? There are many ideas floating around the internet on how Valve could fix this problem. Some of these ideas involve using Steam Greenlight to cut down on abuse of the program. Others believe that Steam should introduce a rule that only games with reviews or playable demos be allowed. Some ideas even propose that entrepreneurs create their own small market to compete with Steam. By comparison, this is a relatively new problem in gaming and it’s hurting everyone from gamers to developers. The answer to “Does Steam need quality control?” comes down to a resounding yes, but the question is “how?”.